issue 206 - April 1990
Your god, the written word
Lectured about financial honesty, an old man bites back
at the ways of the West. Mari Marcel Thekaekara recalls a
clash between two worlds in the hills of southern India.
Nestling amidst the forests and rippling streams of the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu are little settlements of tribes-people. They are the Todas, the Kotas, the Irulas, the Paniyas, the Moolakurumba, the Kattunaickens and the Bettakurumbas. They have lived here since time immemorial. Today they are termed 'adivasis' by the Government, meaning the first settlers.
The philosophy of these people has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. They were pretty much the sentiments of Chief Seattle to the President of the United States in 1855. 'How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land, the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water?' This wisdom was passed on through generations, from grandparent to grandchild.
Into these tribal strongholds came various 'civilized' people who bought and sold the homelands over the heads of the inhabitants. The native people were simply part of the scenery. No-one thought it necessary to consult them. Respecting tribal rights didn't even enter anyone's minds. And so they lost their homelands even while they were living on them. Like the Red Indians in the US and the Aboriginal people of Australia. Like indigenous people in every part of the world.
To combat this our project prompted a questioning process among the younger tribal leaders. Everywhere people began asking WHY? Why are we poor, malnourished, ill? Why have we lost our lands, our forests, our pride, our culture? WHY?
We came across hundreds of cases where people had signed away their land on blank paper in the belief that they were getting ration cards, government pensions or title deeds to their lands. Very few people had papers to show possession of their land. Their logic was simple. It is my land. Why should I need a piece of paper to prove it's mine? Is my word not enough? Slowly we began to understand the tribals' total lack of interest in the literacy drive that government and voluntary agencies were trying to popularize.
We were forming co-operatives or sangams in all the villages. Every member contributed ten rupees towards the fund. A meeting at our office was scheduled to teach a group of Bettakurumba tribals how to keep the sangam accounts and write their books. My husband Stan hastily set up blackboard, chalk and duster but when the group of 50 settled down he realized with a shock that only two people were literate. Hastily he put away chalk and papers and began a general discussion on the state of things in the villages and in tribal society. This group lived deep in the forest and consequently were unaffected by urban influences. Their simplicity had remained intact, uncorrupted by outside values and standards.
Gradually the discussion veered towards money and accountability. Stan tried to explain gently that many sangams had been utterly ruined because of unscrupulous leaders usurping official funds. This had led to chaos and a generally messy end for the villages concerned. The hard work of months could be destroyed by one crooked leader if the people were not vigilant.
Mathan, an old Bettakurumba man, turned to look Stan fully in the face. His skin was parchment-like, weatherbeaten, lined with the wisdom of centuries. In his slow, deliberate manner he spoke to Stan as to a little child.
'This man Manben is my leader,' he said, pointing to the chief. 'I and all my tribe have appointed him our headman. He has reached this stature after many moons, having eaten much rice. With many white hairs he has attained this wisdom. Could he have done all this, achieved this position in our society if he were a dishonourable man? Are we fools to elect a thief to be head of our people? And is he an imbecile to throw away the honour and prestige and dignity of his chieftainship, the respect of his people, the veneration of the young ones, for a few hundred rupees?
'You attach so much importance to some figures written on a piece of paper, a book. Do men lack honour that the spoken word has so little importance in your world? Why so much value, so much worship, for the same words merely because they are transferred to a piece of paper?'
We had no words to answer him. In silence and in shame I wondered, could I convey his wisdom to our literate millions?
Mari Marcel Thekaekara has been working for the last seven years on a project she and her husband started for indigenous people in South India.